Review: Jurassic World

Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jake Johnson

Review: Entourage

Starring Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly, Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Dillon

Review: San Andreas

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Alexandra Daddario, Carla Gugino

Review: Ex Machina

Starring Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson

Review: Pitch Perfect 2

The Pitch is Back!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Everyone loves the cinematic version of Iron Man.  As for the rest of the Avengers, they often play to mixed reviews.  So before I express my opinion on Thor: The Dark World, I should divulge that I am a big fan of the first movie, so much so that I believe it to be one of the most underrated Marvel Studio film.  But this is not an article about the merits of the first film, so I digress.  In regards to Thor 2, the best I can say is that it is entertaining; and the worst that I can say is that the script is definitely not its strong point.  The net result then is a highly uneven finished product.

In the general timeline of the Marvel cinematic universe, Thor 2 takes place two years after the events of The Avengers and a few months after Iron Man 3.  The crux of the film rests on a rare occurrence called the convergence, when the nine realms come into complete alignment.  When a dark force known as the Aether awakens Malekith - a nefarious being who wishes to use this alignment to destroy the nine realms, Thor must form an uneasy alliance with his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in order to preserve all life.

What is recognizably different about this film from its predecessor is its look and feel.  Gone is the cleanly Shakespearian aesthetic crafted by Kenneth Branagh in favor of the rugged medieval Game of Thrones vibe of Alan Taylor.  If the first movie had the god-like Asgardians residing in the clouds, this movie has them firmly planted in the mud.  What Taylor does well in this film is balance some sense of regality with the grit of raw and-to-hand combat with sci-fi visuals that promise to eventually take Marvel’s narrative towards the Guardians of the Galaxy.  At face value, none of these elements readily go together, but in this film they somehow seem to mesh. 

What Taylor misses the boat on is tying up the machinations of the different sets of characters into some kind of cohesive story.  There are a lot of things going on in this film and a lot of moving pieces – and at times it’s hard to discern the rhyme and reason behind the action unfolding onscreen.  Are the answers to these questions embedded in the film’s exposition?  Yes, but buried in random scenes and not nearly fleshed out in the way that they should be.  I suspect that this is the result of what can best be described as spotty editing marked by more than a few questionable cuts.

What I really enjoyed about the movie is the work of the featured members of the cast.  In this film, there is no doubt that Chris Hemsworth is Thor.  Sure, he was solid in the first outing, but from the outset it is crystal clear that in this, his third time wielding the hammer, he fully owns the character.  And while many are quick to shower praise upon Tom Hiddleston and Natalie Portman for the chemistry that their respective character share with Thor, it takes two to tango and thus an equal share of that praise has to fall upon Hemsworth’s shoulders.

Speaking of Tom Hiddleston, his Loki is the exception to Marvel’s cinematic rogues’ gallery in that his is the only one that is complex and fully realized.  Thus, for many he is as much a draw to this film (if not more so) than the lead character himself.  All of that credit goes to Hiddleston who has quickly proven himself to be a very good actor.  Sure, the character of Loki lends himself to the snappiest lines, but Hiddleston delivers them in such a way as to keep the tone both light and menacing - a nearly impossible balance to maintain. 

And as for Natalie Portman, what’s not to like about her Jane Foster?  Portman plays her smart, smitten, and strong - a worthy equal to Hemsworth’s Thor.  For all the things that this film is, at its center it is a love story and the driving force behind that arc is Portman.  It’s not a perfect performance, but it is a layered one and that’s not something we always get from good actors appearing in tent pole films.

One of my larger complaints about this film is how the supporting cast is handled.  Jamie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano as Thor’s fellow Asgardian warriors are given very little to do in this film and are thus rendered mostly insignificant.  Likewise, Christopher Eccleston as Malekith, continues Marvel’s run of churning out fairly uninteresting villains.  Eccleston does little more than deliver sparse lines while wearing poor make up.  You could have picked someone up off the street and gotten the same exact result.

Then there is Stellan Skarsgard and Idris Elba – two seasoned actors, who just seemed to miss the boat with everything they were doing.  It’s certainly not for a lack of trying, but the way their scenes played out never seemed right.  Unfortunately, that feeling of complete apathy emanating from the cast comes from its most accomplished member.  Anthony Hopkins as Odin delivers an uneven, detached, and lazy performance that runs completely contradictory to all that was established in the first film.  With every expression and line delivered, it feels like Hopkins has zero desire to be where he is.  That his character spends most of the movie off screen turns out to be a huge plus for the film’s overall quality.

So as you can see, there are things I liked and things I loathed.  But what does any of that mean to you?  It means that if you love superhero movies or all things Marvel, then go see this movie.  It’s fun to see these characters again and watch them come to life onscreen.  And it’s Thor and Loki and Natalie Portman looking great on screen.  It is all such a welcome sight in a year when good action movies have been scarce.  But if you’re a bit more ambivalent about the genre then you may want to save this one for a rental.  It is after all, a bit lean as a straight narrative.  Regardless, whether you love it or hate it, you have to admire Marvel’s approach to developing this story arc across multiple franchises.  Here’s hoping that when all is said and done, the payoff lives up to the expectations.

Standout Performance:  Tom Hiddleston.  He does nothing in this movie to hurt his status as a fan favorite.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

November 2013 Movie Guide

NOVEMBER 1, 2013

Starring: Rachel McAdams, Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson
Why You Should See It: Rachel McAdams.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because time travel movies are always incredibly problematic.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says: Girlfriend Rules apply.

Starring: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin 
Why You Should See It: Because you love the books.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you've seen Harrison Ford's last few movies.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says: Rental at best.

Starring: Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert DeNiro, Kevin Kline
Why You Should See It: Because the aforementioned quartet is as good as it gets.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you saw Old Dogs and Wild Hogs and know how this film will play out.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says: Take a pass.

Other theatrical releases:  Dallas Buyers Club, Diana

NOVEMBER 8, 2013

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom HIddleston, Anthony Hopkins.
Why You Should See It: Because you can't get enough of Marvel.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you the first one was not your favorite Marvel movie.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  See it.

NOVEMBER 15, 2013

Starring: Terrence Howard, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs
Why You Should See It: Because it seems packed with hammed up relationship humor.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you don’t like hammed up relationship humor.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  If possible, take a pass.

Other theatrical releases: The Book Thief, Great Expectations

NOVEMBER 22, 2013

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders
Why You Should See It: Because Vince Vaughn and Chris Pratt can be hilarious.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because It's been a while since a Vince Vaughn movie was THAT hilarious.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Roll the dice.

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson
Why You Should See It: Because everything Jennifer Lawrence does turns to gold.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the first film was decent but not great.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Sure, why not.

Other theatrical releases: Nebraska

NOVEMBER 27, 2013

Starring: Josh Brolins, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson
Why You Should See It: Because Chan-Wook Park's original Oldboy is a cult classic.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because there's no way this one will top the original (and because Spike Lee is directing).
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Never.

Other theatrical releases: Black Nativity, Frozen, Homefront

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: Captain Phillips

I’m not the biggest Tom Hanks fan.  I readily admit that he’s a good (sometimes great) actor, but I just don’t find myself terribly interested in his work.  In fact, my favorite Tom Hanks movie dates back to 1988 (Big) when Hanks was still a comedic talent.  So count me in the minority when it comes to the academy award-winning actor.  So it truly was a rare occasion this past weekend when I ventured out to the cinema to see a movie in Captain Phillips that features the aforementioned Hanks.  And truth be told, I was surprisingly entertained.

The plot of the movie tells the tale of the Maersk Alabama, a US freighter navigating international waters off the coast of Africa.  When a group of Somali pirates hijack the American ship, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew work to ensure the safety of the ship and its cargo until the U.S. Naval authorities can intervene. 

In what has become an increasingly annoying trend with Hollywood productions based on true stories, there has been much dispute about the accuracy of the film.  I hate to sound like a broken record, but it’s a vehicle to entertain, not to educate.  I don’t think writers, actors, producers, or the industry as a whole try to purport themselves as objective documenters of history.  So I find it completely baffling that there are people out there who bristle at the use of creative license to enhance the entertainment value of a film.  But I digress.

What makes this movie entertaining is director Paul Greengrass’ ability to incrementally build tension throughout the first half of the movie.  The threat is slow but imminent and all the players know where things are probably headed, but Greengrass and company are still able to tighten the proverbial screws.  There’s a methodical rhythm to the open ocean that makes reactionary movement slow and Greengrass expertly uses that as a mechanism to keep the narrative taut.  It also sets up a nice contrast to the rapid movements that occur in the closed spaces aboard the ships.

As for the aforementioned Hanks, he does a nice job of creating a character in Captain Phillips that feels real and has depth.  Rather than pull from past performances, as other actors with long resumes are wont to do, Hanks puts something to film that feels fresh.  The role calls for something understated but still compelling enough to carry a feature film and Hanks manages to walk that tight rope.  It may not find its way into his pantheon of performances, but it deserves some recognition – especially when you consider that he was surrounded by a very inexperienced cast.

Yet as inexperienced as the supporting cast is, collectively they perform admirably.  Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat Ali, and Barkhad Abdirahman – all newcomers to the acting game – come together to portray the Somali pirates in a compelling manner.  The combination of Billy Ray’s writing and their respective performances works to develop the characters into something more than gun toting villains.  Of the group, Barkhad Abdi (as Muse) exhibits the best onscreen presence and puts together the most layered performance.   Don’t get me wrong.  They are not always perfect and there are moments where the delivery feels hammed up, but given their inexperience and the quality of the finished product, it’s hard to find too much fault with what makes it onto the big screen.

Like any other film, Captain Phillips is by no means perfect.  The balance of the film feels very uneven, as the pacing comes to a screeching halt in the third act to such an extent that it almost feels like two different films.  While you are waiting for the payoff through multiple false endings and a glut of detail, you can literally feel the goodwill built up by the taut first half of the film quickly erode.  I can immediately count a number of moments that probably should have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Issues aside, Captain Phillips is a decently entertaining movie.  While I don’t think you necessarily have to run out to the cinema to see it on the big screen, there are far worse ways to spend two hours of your life.  You’ll probably get the best value from this movie as a rental, unless you are one of those people who believes all movies should be true to life, in which case you should probably take a pass.  For everyone else, it will not only occupy those two hours of your life, but will entertain you for another hour thereafter as you will definitely feel compelled to go online and figure out where the line between fact and fiction resides.

Standout Performance:  Tom Hanks.  He is by far the most seasoned and most prominent member of the principle cast and thus deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Gravity

Despite what you may have heard, director Alfonso Cuaron has not reinvented motion pictures and has not forever changed the way movies will be made.  What he has done is crafted a film in Gravity that is visually stunning, utilizing 3D technology in a way that is legitimately a part of the narrative, rather than as a gimmick to charge you six dollars.  So if you are one of those people who shy away from 3D because you think it wil, hurt your eyes or you don’t like the way you look in those plastic glasses, you are going to want to put those reservations aside and go see this movie because Cuaron has put together a solid film.

The plot of the film finds Astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) on a routine spacewalk.  Kowalski is on his final mission before retirement, while Stone is on her first mission and in the middle of performing some technical alterations to a satellite when a storm of debris rains down on them.  The resulting damage proves critical and leaves the two scrambling to survive the perils of space.

Having seen the film, the single most important thought that I can convey is that it’s probably not nearly as fun without 3D technology.  That’s not to say it’s all about the 3D, but this is a movie that relies on the physical space and its effect on the senses.  And because this movie was shot for 3D (as opposed to a post-production conversion), it utilizes the technology to fully immerse you in the experience.  Those visuals and the clever use of sound bring to life the cold vastness that is space.

But like any good film, Gravity does not rely on visuals alone.  Cuaron uses isolationism and claustrophobia to craft a taut tense movie, which is ironic because the events are set against the infinite backdrop that is space.  And like many other narratives that place their protagonists at the edge of the abyss, the film delves into issues such as hope, faith, and love.  In this regard, it is not unique, but entertaining nonetheless.

It cannot be overstated how vital the work of every actor is in this movie, especially when it features just two.  Sure Ed Harris has a minor vocal presence as the voice of Mission Control and Paul Sharma and Amy Warren flash briefly onscreen as other astronauts on the mission.  But really, nearly every single frame of this film is dedicated to the performances of Bullock and/or Clooney.

From the moment you hear Clooney snap off some cagey banter in his typical breezy delivery it is immediately apparent that he is on his game.  It helps that the role doesn’t demand that he  do anything that resides outside his range.  Rather, the script calls for the veteran actor to play an incarnation of himself – and allows for the kind of dry wit upon which his reputation has been built.   It all plays into this character of Matt Kowalski, a seasoned astronaut enjoying his last few moments in the proverbial sun.

As for Bullock, she is not exactly a slouch in this film either, though I think there are some issues with how her character is portrayed.  At the outset, Bullock does a good job of crafting this new to space astronaut – more research oriented than field-tested.  It plays into her ability to convey self-repression and apprehension.  But as the events of the film ramp up and the challenges crescendo, there is a fundamental shift in Bullock’s Doctor Stone, and while it is completely by design, it also causes some inconsistencies in her performance.  So while she is not completely to blame, the combination of Cuaron’s script and her acting makes disbelief increasingly difficult to suspend.

As for the science of the film, is it always spot on and completely plausible?  Of course not, because it’s a movie designed to entertain, not educate.  And to this end, Cuaron manages to craft a film that engages you and makes you feel invested in the characters to such an extent that you’re willing to overlook the details that can at times leave you scratching your head.  And that he layers this manner of storytelling with a rich audio and visual experience makes the film all the better.

Again, Gravity is not a film that will revolutionize the movie industry.  And contrary to the usual knee jerk reaction by most media outlets, it’s not going to sweep all the Oscar categories.  What Gravity is, is an entertaining movie that offers the kind of experience that should coax you to leave the comforts of your home to see it on the big screen.  Sure, it’s going to cost you a few extra bucks, but you won’t be thinking about that as you exit the cinema.  What more can you ask for?

Standout Performance:  George Clooney.  His performances have included more than a few misses recently, but this one plants a check firmly in the hit category.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: Don Jon

I am a big fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, because as an entertainer, he is a triple threat.  He can act, sing, and dance – all really well.  After watching his directorial debut entitled Don Jon, I suspect that I may soon have to start referring to him as a quadruple threat.  Because while Don Jon is not perfect, there are some good things going on in this movie that suggest that Gordon-Levitt has a bright future as a filmmaker.

The plot of the Gordon-Levitt penned film tells the story of Jon Martello, a young man raised in the shadows of New York City, who has been given the nickname Don Jon by his boys out of admiration for his ability to pick up one night stands.  Like any other boy meets girl story, when Jon meets a “dime” named Barbara it seems that he may have met the woman of her dreams and likewise she has met her perfect match.  The only catch is that he is addicted to pornography.  Hilarity and self-discovery ensue.

So the thing that is going to immediately going to jump of the screen is the film’s overt sexuality.  From innuendo to pornography, the plot is packed to the gills with all things carnal.  To say that I can hardly hear the sound of my Mac booting up without associating it with racy scenes from the movie would be an understatement (you’ll understand once you see the film).  Sure, there are moments where it feels overly gratuitous but upon closer inspection, there’s a purpose to all that unfolds on screen.  While the sexuality of the film may be a titular attraction for some and a vulgar turnoff for others, it actually serves as a tool for making some clever observations.  Don’t get me wrong.  Don Jon is not that movie which is intent on making a high level high-brow commentary on life, but rather it pokes fun at relationships as they exist in this day and age.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the writer, director, and star does some really good work in this film.  As Jon Martello, Gordon-Levitt does a very good job of paying attention to details and pulling together a character that has depth and is authentic.  From the slicked back hair to the weight lifting sessions; the Catholicism and the obnoxious strut, there is a purpose to these details that come together to create an unapologetic character sketch that is highly reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever.  It’s not an awards season kind of performance but it is an entertaining one.

Scarlett Johansson, as Barbara, does a nice job as a well-to-do princess with a cheesy New York accent.  Sure, it’s something we have seen from her before in hammed up Saturday Night Live sketches, but in Don Jon Johansson reigns it in enough to convincingly portray a character who is as nauseating and grating as a significant other as she is attractive as a woman.  The masterful stroke to this portrayal is the true-to-life manner with which one must peel back the layers to truly discover her shortcomings.

Along with the two leads, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza also bring a lot of positives to the production.  With Moore, it is simply no surprise.  She is both talented and experienced and has a track record of consistency that is second to none.  Her work in Don Jon is no exception as it oscillates between funny and poignant whenever the script demands.  Danza’s work, however, comes as a complete surprise.  When last we saw him in a feature film role of any significance, the year was 1994 and the movie was Angels in the Outfield (also featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  In Don Jon, Danza expertly plays Jon’s father, by proving that he still has that comedic touch.  Some of the best moments are born from Danza’s physical comedy and his ability to deliver a punch line.  This results in a number of instances where Danza completely steals the scene.

Unfortunately, no production is without its flaws.  One issue with Don Jon is that as you move further down the cast roster, the performances become more uneven.  Glenne Headly, Rob Brown, and Jeremy Luke each have moments where they shine but those are interspersed between too many missed opportunities and hands that are overplayed.  In some respects, this is a byproduct of how their respective characters are written; as hammed up vehicles for plot advancement and punch lines, but then the exact same could be said of Tony Danza’s character.  As for Brie Larson, she is drastically under utilized as a means to set up one of the climactic moments of the film, but unfortunately the pay off does not pay off.

What really keeps hinders Don Jon and prevents it from being a remarkable movie is the third act.  It runs long and goes awry with a swerve that feels more like it was injected into the plot to placate the expectations of the target demographic.  It turns the film from a clever one with an indie flair to one that might be run on The Lifetime Network.  The tone changes so drastically that it feels like a different film and that chasm between the second and third act, damages the plot’s cohesiveness.

Still, in its totality, the movie is enjoyable.  At times the direction and framing are simple – perhaps too simple – and everything feels a bit too linear, but much of this stems from Gordon-Levitt’s relative inexperience behind the camera.  Still, in the scenes that work you can see his potential and the promise that more seasoning should bring to fruition.  I would recommend this movie, though I don’t know that you need to run out to the cinema to watch it.  While it is loaded with visuals, they are not necessarily the ones that need to be plastered on the big screen to be appreciated.  So for most, this may play better as rental. Regardless of how you choose to view it, I feel fairly confident that you will at worst be moderately entertained.  That’s no faint praise considering the quality of theatrical releases this year.

Standout Performance:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt for writing, directing, and starring in this film.